Illinois Lawmakers Try to Keep FutureGen Project Alive

Sat May 31, 2008 - Midwest Edition
David Mercer - ASSOCIATED PRESS



CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) Illinois’ congressional delegation is searching for ways to keep the FutureGen clean-coal power plant once planned for central Illinois alive until a new president takes office in January.

Sen. Dick Durbin has exercised the first of a limited set of options, threatening to block White House appointments to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) while looking for a way to pass legislation to keep the project afloat.

“We’re trying to keep it alive for a new president. It’s just that simple,” Durbin said. “I do not want to walk away from the millions of dollars we’ve invested in this.”

The power and coal companies that worked with the DOE to build the plant selected Mattoon, about 50 mi. south of Champaign, in December. The DOE, which was going to cover 74 percent of the cost, quickly pulled the plug on the project, complaining about escalating costs, and announced a plan to instead help finance several plants.

Durbin and others have long suspected politics and President Bush’s Texas roots were behind the decision — Mattoon was chosen over another Illinois site and two in Texas.

Durbin and the rest of the Illinois delegation have to find a way to keep the project alive by June, when the DOE can legally cancel its contract with the coal and power companies, collectively known as the FutureGen Alliance.

Durbin told the White House in a March 13 letter that he would block any DOE nominations until the agency clears the way to build the plant in Mattoon.

The first tests of that plan are under way. The White House nominations of J. Gregory Copeland as DOE general counsel and Jeffrey Kupfer as deputy secretary await Senate consideration, something Durbin said he will block.

DOE spokeswoman Megan Barnett wouldn’t directly address Durbin’s tactics or questions about whether the agency might reconsider its stance on FutureGen.

“The department will continue to work with members of Congress on this and other important matters,” she said.

White House spokesman Blair Jones said the appointments are critical.

“The president has nominated well-qualified individuals for posts at the Energy Department that need to be filled,” Jones said.

Durbin, Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, and other lawmakers from Illinois also say they’re still looking for a way to get a piece of legislation through Congress and past Bush to extend the legal life of the planned Mattoon plant past June.

The legislation would likely have to be attached to something the president couldn’t afford to reject, said Steven Tomaszewski, a spokesman for Shimkus.

“It’s a matter of finding that mechanism,” Tomaszewski said, adding that it hasn’t yet been found.

Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have both expressed support for the original FutureGen project. Republican candidate John McCain’s press office did not immediately return a telephone call from The Associated Press.

FutureGen Alliance spokesman Lawrence Pacheco said he remains “cautiously optimistic” the plant can be built at Mattoon.

The alliance and economic developers in Mattoon expect to soon close on more than 400 acres planned for the plant, splitting the roughly $6 million cost, he said. Local officials did not return a call from The Associated Press.

The DOE, meanwhile, expects to solicit bids to build its revised, multisite FutureGen by the end of May, Barnett said.

FutureGen was intended to prove that coal could be burned to generate power while the carbon dioxide released in the process could be captured and stored underground rather than released into the atmosphere. It was announced in 2003 with strong backing from the president.

The projected cost when announced was $950 million and had risen to $1.8 billion when the DOE pulled the plug in January.

The FutureGen Alliance has pointed out that construction costs have increased for just about any major project because building materials have become far more expensive the past few years.